Federer edges out Ljubicic as final scales the heights

The statistics said that Roger Federer and Ivan Ljubicic were the two best players in the world this year and their final in the Nasdaq-100 Open here last night lived up to the billing. Federer successfully defended his title by winning a contest of the highest quality 7-6, 7-6, 7-6, the first time that he has won a match with three successive tie-breaks.

The winning point, when the world No 1's return of serve clipped the top of the net and dribbled over the other side, was a cruel blow to Ljubicic, who had done little wrong. If Federer had the edge in terms of his touch and speed around the court, the Croatian had the greater weight of shot and served 21 aces to his opponent's eight.

Ljubicic won 106 points to Federer's 102 in the 36 games played, but in winning the three tie-breaks, 7-5, 7-4 and 8-6, Federer proved once again that there is no better player of the key points. He has won 12 of his 13 tie-breaks this year, his one loss coming against Arnaud Clément in the second round here when he lost seven points in a row after going 4-0 up.

"It was a very even match and it came down to the big points again," Federer said. "I believe the serve is very important in a tie-break, but if that doesn't work I never panic. You have to believe in your game."

Ljubicic, who has now lost seven times to Federer in 15 months, had been determined to learn from his recent defeat to the Swiss in Indian Wells, when he had been too bold with some of his shots.

Here he played with a fine mix of aggression and composure, although there were occasions in the tie-breaks when he put his foot down on the accelerator a fraction too hard.

In the first set there were only two break points, both saved by Federer in the third game. The world No 1 served an ace to win the tie-break on his first set point after Ljubicic had tried to force the pace but hit a backhand long. Breaks of serve were exchanged in the middle of the second set, at the end of which Ljubicic led the tie-break 4-1 but then proceeded to lose six successive points.

The world No 6 broke in the first game of the third set, only to blow his advantage when he played a poor game to allow Federer to level the scores at 3-3. The difference between the two men was summed up by two points in the final tie-break. When Ljubicic tried to up the ante with a second serve that was recorded at 106mph he hit it long. Yet when the Croatian had his only set point, at 6-5, Federer hit a superb kicking ace down the middle.

The women's final on Saturday brought reward for Svetlana Kuznetsova's hard work over the winter. She had not won a tournament since the month of her 2004 US Open triumph but rounded off an excellent week by beating Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-3.

Kuznetsova, who moves four places up the world rankings to No 10, has always been one of the fiercest strikers of the ball but also one of the more erratic. "I was trying to hit the ball too hard before," she said. "Now I'm only using half my power and the ball still seems to go pretty fast. Sometimes I have to think about not hitting the ball so hard. I have to tell myself just to keep the ball in play, which can make it tough for my opponent.

"I was moving well and hitting the ball deep, which meant Maria couldn't hit many winners. She couldn't attack me, but that meant that I could attack her. That's definitely what she doesn't like."

Sharapova, who struggled to put together more than two good points, appeared distracted by the constant drone of a light aircraft which circled above the court trailing an advertising banner throughout the first set. Kuznetsova, in contrast, was quickly into her stride, finding a good length and hitting a succession of winners from both sides of the court.

Sharapova, who won at Indian Wells a fortnight ago, put her defeat in perspective. "I've done amazingly," she said. "To win 11 straight matches and get to three finals in a row is pretty consistent."

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